Analysis 04 May 12

Searching for Buried Truth at RTS

Delays and “missing” documents damage hopes for an official inquiry into NATO attack on state broadcaster.

Marija Ristic and Gordana Andric

The authorities support commemorations of the RTS attack – but cannot lay to rest doubts over the deaths. | Photo by Beta

Thirteen years after a NATO air-strike killed 16 RTS employees, Serbian officials are facing fresh criticism over their failure to address the suspicion that lives were deliberately put at risk.

Campaigners want to examine whether the government of the time, led by Slobodan Milosevic, ignored warnings of an attack on the state broadcaster because it intended to use civilian casualties as propaganda against NATO.

The relatives of those killed in the bombing on April 23, 1999, asked for an inquiry more than five years ago, with the backing of legal activists and NGOs.

However, despite recent assurances by officials, no trial date has been set. BIRN has also uncovered uncertainty over who is in charge of prosecuting the case, casting doubt on whether a preliminary investigation has made any progress.

The campaigners now fear time is running out for judicial action, with the statute of limitations set to expire in two years’ time. They have accused the authorities of impeding their efforts to hold an inquiry.

Their suspicions have been fuelled by reports of an internal memo which supposedly confirmed that defence officials knew beforehand of plans to target the RTS building. However, the defence ministry has denied the existence of any such document.

“There is no political will to deal with these political murders,” Zanka Stojanovic, the mother of one of the victims of the bombing, told BIRN.

Leaders from Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, are key players in the current coalition government, whose term expires before elections this month.

While the SPS did not answer BIRN’s calls for comment, the defence ministry has said it is co-operating fully with prosecutors and has passed on to them all material that is relevant to the inquiry.

War crime allegations:

Zanka Stojanovic, the mother of one of the victims, calls for investigation. | Photo by Beta

The attack on the RTS building was one of the most controversial strikes during NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign. The alliance went to war against Belgrade when Milosevic refused to back down over the province of Kosovo, where his security forces had been accused of persecuting the ethnic Albanian majority.

According to Serbian official data, the NATO campaign killed between 1,200 and 2,500 people, including 89 children. About 120 people were working in the RTS building on the night that it was bombed. Of the 16 who died, most were production staff.

Describing RTS as Milosevic’s “ministry of lies”, NATO said the broadcaster had been a legitimate target because it produced propaganda in support of the regime.

Serbian officials condemned the attack as a war crime. Amnesty International also said the alliance had failed to abide by the laws of war in its targeting of a civilian institution.

Soon after the bombing campaign ended, the families of the people killed in the RTS building accused Milosevic of “sacrificing” lives in order to score propaganda points against NATO.

Milosevic was overthrown amid street protests in 2000. In 2002, the former director of RTS, Dragoljub Milanovic, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to carry out an order to evacuate the broadcaster’s offices. 

The relatives of the dead, and the NGOs who had campaigned along with them, were not satisfied with the verdict. They argued that Milanovic was effectively a scapegoat, as he would not have acted against the wishes of superiors who were known to exercise direct influence over RTS.

Over the last decade, the war crimes trials of Milosevic and his allies at The Hague have repeatedly cited their tight control over state institutions such as RTS.

Dispute over File 466:

Milan Antonijevic believes that file 466 can reveal the truth about RTS bombing. | Photo by Media Centre Belgrade

The campaigners’ hopes were bolstered by reports that a document, held by the defence ministry, proved that the Serbian authorities had ample warning of the attack on the RTS building.

The claim was made by Colonel Lakic Djorovic, a legal officer from the military who was tasked with gathering evidence for the Milanovic trial. He said a certain file, numbered 466, contained papers showing that an army command centre had overheard NATO pilots’ plans and passed the information to their headquarters.

However, the defence ministry denied the existence of any such document, in response to a request by an information commissioner and by the families of the dead. The ministry also published several papers which it said were the entire contents of file number 466.

In an interview with BIRN in April, Djorovic insisted he had seen the key documents. “I gathered the file and marked it myself. I have not made a mistake. I know what is in it. I know where it lies in the ministry,” he said.

Campaigners say they have yet to receive a response to their requests for the key documents. The requests were submitted under freedom-of-information laws.

“There is no doubt that these documents exist,” said Milan Antonijevic from the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, YUKOM, one of the NGOs working on behalf of the families of the dead.

Ticking clock:

Tomo Zoric says the Prosecutior's Office is working on the RTS case. | Photo by Media Centre Belgrade

Some campaigners suspect that politicians who are currently in power are obstructing their quest for the truth. The outgoing coalition government includes Milosevic’s old party, SPS.

According to Jelena Milic from the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies, another NGO that is aiding the families of RTS victims, the delays in the case are partly down to “the fact that some people who were working during the war are still active in the army and in politics”.

While officials from the SPS did not respond to BIRN’s request for comment, the defence ministry insists it is co-operating over the case. “The ministry has submitted all documents to the prosecutor and now the case is in the hands of the judiciary,” a spokesperson told BIRN.

The public prosecutor’s office also recently said it had received the documents from the ministry. The statement by Tomo Zoric, a spokesman, was the first official confirmation from the prosecutor’s office that it was looking into the RTS case. It was issued in April, just before the 13th anniversary of the NATO strike – and some five years after the prosecutor was first presented with evidence by the campaigners.

The families of the victims doubt whether their case will reach a court before the statute of limitations expires in 2014.

“In 2006, Zoric said the prosecutor would look into the case – and nothing happened. And now we are in 2012 and we hear the same thing,” said Stojanovic, the mother of one of the people killed in the bombing.

“We have spent the last ten months having discussions in the office of the prosecutor for organised crime,” she told BIRN. “There are no new details in this case. There is only a tonne of old evidence that no one has followed up.”

However, doubts remain over which prosecutor is managing the RTS case, or indeed, whether it is being managed at all.

The special court for organised crime, which liaises with the prosecutor in the same field, said it had not received any information on the case since the end of the Milanovic trial. Maja Kovacevic Tomic, a spokeswoman for the court, told BIRN that while all investigations were handled primarily by the prosecutor, “what I can say is that we would know if the case was being investigated”.

Zoric also told BIRN he did not know which prosecutor was in charge of the case. “Maybe they are doing it together,” he said. He was also unable to confirm whether the material handed over by the ministry included the full contents of file number 466.

“I don’t know exactly what documents have been sent by the defence ministry, but I do know they sent us everything,” he said.

In an interview with Tanjug news agency on April 6, Zoric sought to allay concerns that time was running out to bring a prosecution.

“Determining the truth is a priority for the prosecutor’s office and we will take further steps. The office is taking care about time limits," he said. He added that there was "no fear" that the case would expire under the statute of limitations.

Advance knowledge:

The families’ campaign for an investigation has been championed by several other groups in recent years, including a Serbian independent journalists’ association and NGOs such as the Humanitarian Law Centre and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.

The European Parliament’s rapporteur for Serbia, Jelko Kacin, also recently sent a letter to the defence minister, urging an investigation into the deaths at RTS.

Colonel Djorovic, the military official who gathered evidence for the Milanovic trial, is certain that the truth behind the deaths of the 16 RTS employees will be revealed. “One day, someone will be held responsible for what happened that night and for all that followed,” he told BIRN.

Several claims made by top Serbian officials suggest they had advance knowledge of NATO’s bombing plans.

Momir Bulatovic, the former president of Yugoslavia, wrote in his book, Rules of Silence, of listening to an intercepted communication between NATO pilots during a visit to a Serbian command centre.

Colonel Momir Stojanovic, a former head of military security, told the Nedeljni Telegraf newspaper in 2003 that his team was able to stay abreast of NATO’s plans.

“We knew when the bombardment would start, how it would go on, what targets NATO would hit. We informed the army and state leadership about this all the time,” he was quoted as saying.

Amateur radio operators in Serbia were also able to pick up NATO communications and pass them on to the authorities. Numerous buildings were evacuated on time. The offices of TV Vojvodina in Novi Sad were hit by NATO on April 4, after all its employees had left.

The Usce business complex in Belgrade was bombed on April 21. Although it had not been seen as a possible target, the building was evacuated before the raid. NATO also bombed Milosevic’s residence on April 22. The president was not there at the time.

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